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Pennsylvania artisan was known for his classic cast-iron fireplace designs. He says Chinese copies are killing him

Jason Nark, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

HAMBURG, Pa. -- J. Del Conner's biggest headache is currently out of stock, but the Berks County renaissance man fears more could be en route, via cargo ships from China.

Conner, 69, designs and sells cast-iron firebacks, large plates that are propped up inside fireplaces to protect the bricks and radiate heat. Conner started Pennsylvania Firebacks in 1979 in Philadelphia, and at his peak was selling 1,000 a year at $300 to $900 apiece, depending on size and intricacy of design.

That number is down to about 600, and he blames China. Conner says foundries there have stolen his fireback designs, made cheaper versions, and shipped them to suppliers in the United States. Conner was so frustrated, he bought one of the knockoffs himself. The copies are often hundreds of dollars cheaper than his product, but the quality, he argues, is far from the same.

"This is the one I made, and that's the copy from China," he said, holding two firebacks. "It's the same exact thing. Theirs is 39 pounds and mine is 56. The back of theirs is hollow. Mine has my signature on it."

One of J. Del Conner's firebacks is used in his home, which doubles as a studio, in Hamburg. Firebacks are used to protect the bricks in a fireplace and they help to push heat back into the house.

Conner said he's tried to track down the manufacturer, which has been fruitless. Hiring a lawyer, he said, wouldn't be cost-effective. Instead, he's focused on trying to reach out to the suppliers in the U.S. He's found his designs for sale on Home Depot's website.

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"There's not much you can do. You can send letters," he said.

Many websites now say "no stock currently available" for the knockoffs, "but that doesn't mean a shipment isn't on its way now from China," Conner said.

Competition from China is nothing new. The country has been the world's leading exporter of manufactured goods for a decade. Conner's firebacks aren't the only uniquely Pennsylvania products counterfeited there. Zippo lighters, the largest employer in rural McKean County, battles rampant piracy in China, where its products are wildly popular.

In January, the Inquirer reported on a regulatory quirk that enables China to grow mushrooms and market them as a "Product of the USA." The rapid advance of the Chinese market quickly imperiled several Chester County mushroom farmers.

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